Recently, "Mira" cut her hair short. It was cute, and boyish. The next morning, she was called to the office in her high school yeshiva and told, "We don't tolerate such shenanigans." Girls at their school are required to look properly feminine, and all of them are expected to marry.
"Sam" lives in a similar strict religious community. Growing up, he did everything he could to hide the fact that he was gay. He knew if he came out he'd be ostracized at school, and his parents would try to either marry him off, or cut him off from their lives.
Mira and Sam's community is Hasidic -- Jewish ultra-orthodox. There are neighborhoods of Hasidim all over the world, men in black suits and hats with long untrimmed beards, women in modest skirts and long sleeves with their hair covered.
I first met Mira and Sam in a secret Facebook group for LGBTQ people who live or have lived among the Hasidim. The group was formed by activist Chaim Levin after he read my book, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, about my years as a Hasidic woman and secret lesbian. When people first join this group, they tend to say things like, "I've never met anyone like me." Here I found deeply religious people trying desperately to reconcile their sexuality with their faith visiting with openly gay people who fled the community years ago and never looked back. I've met bearded Hasidic rabbis who joined this under a girl's name because they are transgender, and teens thrust out of their homes for being gay who don't know how to live in the secular world. Some are happy. Some are despondent. Many show a striking lack of knowledge about their sexuality. For all of us, the group feels revolutionary. I feel certain it has saved lives.
When I first met the Hasidim, I was a 16-year-old Dallas public school kid from a liberal family. But I loved their joy. My family life was chaotic, while they seemed to know exactly where they were going and what they wanted. Besides, the homoerotic undertow in such communities is striking. I watched Hasidic men dance arm-in-arm and sing with one other, joined in fervent collective love for their Rebbe, and sometimes they even kissed. Meanwhile, the women hovered on the sidelines whispering in one another's ears. To me, at a time when there was no overt social language that was positive for what I was feeling, it was all so beautiful, and freeing, and real.
Not that I even had an inner language for myself. Not back then.
When I joined the Hasidim soon after, my mother was furious. But that just made me smile. For a long time after, I continued to believe that the love of the community was more reliable than the love of my family. It didn't matter that I didn't know intuitively how to fit the Hasidic concept of being a woman, because all I had to do was follow the rules. It didn't matter that I wasn't attracted to men, because we had arranged marriages and your feelings didn't count -- it was all about pleasing God.
But life among them came to seem like living inside a huge high school clique that I couldn't escape. Not following the myriad religious rules was social death.
At 19, I had an arranged marriage to someone I barely knew. We weren't allowed birth control, and I soon had 7 children. My young years disappeared. I never got to date other girls and explore love and sex and learn about myself. Most of those years, I was afraid of who I was. It took many years to extricate myself, but I did.
Still, I think I was lucky, since I wasn't raised in that world. LGBTQ+ kids in fundamentalist societies have secrets to keep from a young age. They feel different when everyone around them is supposed to be the same. They are often shy, insecure, and crave love, and have no one in whom to confide. Abusive people can target kids like that, which is why LGBTQ+ kids in religious communities suffer very high rates of sexual and physical abuse, and a great deal of homelessness and drug addiction.
And suicide. The rate is completely shocking. I've watched people check in with the group in deep isolation, depression, and self-loathing. The others seem to know when someone is teetering, and will shower them with assertions they've often never heard: Believe us. You are beautiful. You are perfect. It can get better.
I asked the group what they wanted to say to their counterparts in other strict religious communities, but first, they wanted to put a message out to the world. They said, "Make people understand that we live in a world where pushing the rules even a little, like shortening your skirt or not wearing tights, can cast doubt on your whole life."
And here's their message to their counterparts in other fundamentalist communities:
"Tell them that sometimes it really is safer not to come out until you leave your parents' house, but the world won't end before then."
"Tell them it might seem like forever right now, but a time will come when they'll be able to go out into the world and find friends and be themselves."
"Tell them that talking to people like us online can be a lifesaver, literally."
"Tell them to always keep a safety plan nearby -- copies of important documents, a friend or relative who'll take them in, key phone numbers, locations of shelters, etc."
Tell them to take care.
Leah Lax is the author of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home.